Can you outline marijuana's history in the U.S.?
DR. DAVID MUSTO
Marijuana started to come into the United States in the 1920s along with
Mexican immigrants, who worked in the beet fields, in the gardens, and so on.
Some of the first anti-marijuana laws, occurred in, somewhat unusual
places, such as Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan. And this is because the
Mexican immigrants did grow marijuana and did use marijuana and it caused some
concern among the people in the vicinity.
Then in the 1930s, when the Great Depression hit, these people became a
feared surplus in our country. People tried to get them to go back to Mexico.
They were thought to be undercutting Americans for jobs, and they were thought
to take marijuana, go into town on the weekends, for example, and create
mayhem. Now that's very close to the general attitude toward marijuana in the
1930s ... that marijuana released inhibitions, and caused people to
act, and, to perhaps, be violent. Even researchers, who were most calm, so to
speak, about marijuana saw it as a very serious problem with regard to
Was this based on real evidence, or was it coming out of a personal attitude
toward the people?
DR. DAVID MUSTO
It's hard to say. It is what researchers saw when they looked at marijuana.
And I know one researcher, who lived in the 1930s, and has lived until today,
and he, himself, [says] what a strange thing it was. Because he now sees marijuana
so differently, something that leads certainly not to a release of
inhibitions, and a sort of violent way. And he puzzles himself, as to why was
it looked at one way at one time, and now it's looked at a different way. So
I can't quite explain it, except it was thought to be a cause of crime and a
cause of senseless violence in the 1930s.
Now, how to control something that was in fact a weed, something that had been
grown in the United States for hemp since the 18th century was a real problem.
And the head of the narcotics bureau, Harry J. Anslinger, really did not want,
in his heart, a federal anti- marijuana law. Because he saw it as putting a
tremendous burden on the Federal Bureau of Narcotics [FBN]. They got no more money,
they got no more agents, and they're supposed to stamp out a weed. He
was telling me that once he was driving across a bridge in the upper Potomac,
he stopped his car, and he got out, and he says, there it was-- marijuana, as
far as you could see it on this river. And he said, "This, they want me to stamp
What Anslinger wanted was a uniform state narcotics law, so that each
state would enact a law, presumably against marijuana. Now Anslinger was not
for marijuana, but each state would decide, for itself, how much resources
it wanted to spend in fighting marijuana. He worked with this, but it
didn't happen. And then there's quite a bit of pressure on the Treasury
Department and the administration to come up with something about marijuana
because there was a growing pressure for anti-marijuana legislation from the
west and from the southwest.
Then a curious thing happened. The National Firearms Act, was upheld by the
Supreme Court, I think, it was February, 1937. The National Firearms Act was
very strange because it attacked machine guns by saying you could not give
somebody a machine gun, or loan them a machine gun, until you had first
purchased a machine gun transfer stamp. And the government did not make any
machine gun transfer stamps. So this was their way of trying to control
Well, it was upheld by the Supreme Court, and within a month later, the
treasury was in to Congress saying they wanted a marijuana tax stamp act, in
which you could not give, barter, sell, or whatever it is marijuana unless
first, you got a marijuana tax stamp. And an ordinary person could not get a
marijuana tax stamp. So, that is how we got the initial marijuana law in
1937, and it was actually over the best judgment of the head of the bureau
of narcotics, who really wanted to just deal with heroin, and cocaine, and
opium, things that came from abroad. He did not want to deal with things that
were indigenous to the United States.
Why did he do that?
DR. DAVID MUSTO
He had experience as assistant commissioner of Prohibition up until about
1930, that when you dealt with a domestic problem, you might arrest a
local druggist, or the local doctor, [and] you got into a lot of difficulty.
Also, you had problems with the federal courts. The federal courts would say,
"Why are you in here with the minor case of someone dealing with alcohol?"
It would be embarrassing and the judges would be difficult with them. And he
thought the success of his bureau would depend upon being careful about what
you were controlling. He did not want to control things that involved him
with domestic issues in this way. He preferred to deal with something that
came from abroad, and when you caught somebody with it you had done something
that everyone was proud of.
Now, of course, they still went after doctors and pharmacists, with regard to
cocaine, heroin, or opium, ... but the American people were so
fearful of these substances that there was really very little complaint when
someone was put out of business for a giving out cocaine, something like that.
And, in fact, Anslinger worked very hard to prevent the FBN from ever having
[to deal with] amphetamines, or barbiturates, or these other kinds of
substances which are now controlled. He wanted a very lean, simple,
There's one other point I might make, and that is, he had a very small budget,
the budget was only $2 million a year or so, and he would be cross-examined by
Congress when he spoke before them as to how much he had spent on long
distance telephone calls, for example. It was a very difficult time--the
Depression. And so he was more than impressed with the difficulties he would
have trying to control marijuana without any more money, without any more
So what Anslinger decided he had to do is fight marijuana in the
media. And so he tried to describe marijuana in so repulsive and terrible
terms that people wouldn't even be tempted to try it. He did something else
that was quite interesting. There were people going around the country
alarming parents about the use of marijuana among their children. These people
he tried to shut down.
It's quite interesting because once the law was passed, if there were any great
agitation about marijuana, in the country, there was only one person to come
to and complain to, and that would be Anslinger, and there was not much he
could do about it. So actually, what he wanted, was silence on marijuana,
but if you had to know something about it, what you would learn is that it was
a most terrible, violent, repulsive thing, and you wouldn't want to try it
So he fought his battle against marijuana in the media, you might say, because
it was the cheapest thing he could possibly do, and he had no money to do
anything else with.
Give me some examples. How did he portray it and in what way?
DR. DAVID MUSTO
Marijuana was portrayed as a substance that if you used marijuana, you might
suddenly run amok, you might stab and kill people. They really described, what
you might call the paranoia of cocaine psychosis, but they attributed it to
smoking marijuana. And that if you did smoke marijuana, there was an extremely
dangerous situation and you might, on the street, just simply see somebody and
think they were after you and kill them.
There was a time in the hearings in which they had a color photograph of
somebody who was beaten to death by someone who was said to be on marijuana.
And they showed this to the committee. The committee misunderstood it, they
thought, "This is what you look like if you took marijuana." And it had to be
explained to them, "No, this is what someone on marijuana did to someone else
under the haze of this drug." So, violence and release of inhibitions was the
theme of marijuana in the 1930s.
And, I've always thought that it reveals how much the general attitude we
have toward a substance affects [and] the research that is done on it. Because in
the 1930s, almost no research could be found which in any way would reassure
you about marijuana. But in the 1960s, when I was at the National Institute of
Mental Health, there was almost no research that was done that could find
anything wrong with marijuana.
So you have these enormous shifts and research, [that] takes place against
these larger attitudes and it's also interpreted in these larger attitudes. So
marijuana is an excellent example of how we have shifted our views on a
[The] image of marijuana [created by the government in the 1930s eventually]
did [the] government great damage in the 1960s. Because when people started
using marijuana and they did not become insane to any great degree, that
completely undercut the government's image of drugs. And there were people in
the 60s, early 70s, who if the government warned them about something, like
say, methamphetamine or speed, they would think, "This must be a good thing to
try." The government had really lost its credibility ... what Anslinger did and
what other people did in the 30s was all, they thought, for the sake of the
people and of the public and so on, but it really, in the long run, backfired
against the government.
What specific means did Anslinger use in the media?
DR. DAVID MUSTO
The newspapers and magazines were his primary outlet for information on
marijuana ... [there] was a very interesting story on the movies. Anslinger
was delighted, in 1934, when the Motion Pictures Association of America, made
it forbidden to show any narcotics in films. That had been a very great
criticism of films in the 1920s, that narcotics use was shown and even how to
So, in 1934 the Major Motion Pictures Studios established a production code, and
you couldn't get a seal of approval if there were any narcotics in the motion
picture. So actually you couldn't use films.
And eventually this upset him very much, because the Federal Bureau of
Investigation, which was his model of how he wanted the FBN to be, was getting
all kinds of good publicity, and people like, Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart,
were becoming FBI agents in the movies. And there couldn't be any narcotics
agents in the movies because he had succeeded in getting narcotics taken out of
Finally, in 1948, he got slight modification that you could show the
narcotics agents and a motion picture was made, called "To The Ends of The
Earth" with Dick Powell. And that does show the narcotics bureau. But no
films were really out for him. And that was because they wanted the public to
know nothing about narcotics, you see? Silence, was a very important element
of the drug strategy, in the 1930s and 40s and 50s. The drug problem had been
greater, it had gone way down, and they didn't want to wake sleeping dogs, so
And, when it did start to come up again, when heroin started to be used again
in the 50s, in New York and in Chicago and among younger people, and in
Hispanic and in black neighborhoods, the thing they reached for was increased
penalties. Anslinger had tremendous faith in penalties as a way of
In the 1950s, when there was a concern about heroin, the laws were strengthened
and they introduced mandatory sentences, and they included marijuana in these
mandatory minimum sentences. It was thought that if you had very severe laws on
the books, it would discourage the pubic from trying these drugs, or using them
to any great extent.
Now there's a curious story about that, because in the first drug epidemic
which peaked around, World War I, say 1900-1915, we had no laws against
drugs until the public demanded laws against drugs. And when the public
demanded laws against drugs, it meant we had a consensus in the country
against drugs. People were very frightened by them. They [drugs] had been very
easily available, we were the only country really to have a free economy in drugs
in the 19th century. But that caused quite a bit of concern about drugs, and the
effects of all this drug use. So when the laws came into effect during the
first epidemic, they seemed to be very powerful, because they came right along
with the decline in drug use.
But in the second epidemic, the one we're in now, we had the most severe drug
laws on the books that you could have! Including the death penalty after 1956.
And we still have a drug epidemic. So, our current view of laws and drugs is a
little bit different than it was for people of Anslinger's time, who really
thought that the whole story was the laws. Because, actually, I think it's much
more reasonable to say that the laws could help to some extent, and they had
some value. But the real change of attitude was the attitude among the
public which became very anti-drug and very fearful of drugs.
What was creating the public attitude, though?
DR. DAVID MUSTO
We have in this country a pattern of looking at drugs and other substances,
such as food, almost as an instrument to improve ourselves. To give an
example of this--during each of the great anti-drug or temperance movements
in this country, there's also been a very strong health movement at the same
time. So these big movements that we talk about actually relate to what we
think of the environment, and what we take into our bodies.
And we became very concerned about what we take into our bodies during what you
might call a temperance period or an anti-drug period. And that goes back each
time we've had one of these in our history. So what we call an anti-drug
movement, you could, at the same time, call it a pro-health movement in which
people become very concerned. One example--Jerry Rubin, somebody I got to know
in the 60s. He was familiar with, I think, all drugs known to mankind. And
in the 60s, people looked upon drugs as instruments that would help them
achieve something that they couldn't achieve by themselves. They were an aid in
some way. Then after about 1980, the attitude started to shift. And people
started to think that if you take drugs, you're reduced by that much. Jerry
Rubin moved from trying any drug that was around, to having a dietitian come to
his house, twice a week, to plan out the most healthy possible food there could
In other words, he made the perfect transition from the 60s, which was
tolerant of anything, to the 1980s and 90s in which there's a great concern
about what we take into our body and are we healthy and are we exercising
properly and so on. So, in a way, these large movements have to do with our
attitude toward risk. And we move from risk-taking, to risk-reduction. And many
things follow in that, including drugs, health, foods we eat, and so on.
Do you think of marijuana as particularly symbolic regarding American
ambivalence about drugs?
DR. DAVID MUSTO
Well, marijuana in the 30s was symbolic of Mexican immigrants, let's say, who
were feared and were seen as a uneconomic surplus. And in the 1960s, when
people took marijuana, it was seen as a symbol of belonging to something which
was very moral, and was fighting the establishment. So you see that
marijuana in both instances, as drugs often do, symbolized something larger.
You can either take a drug, because it symbolizes something, or you can refuse
to take a drug that symbolizes something. When I first started work on this
many years ago, the first big surprise I got was the way in which cocaine
became symbolic of southern blacks and the period before World War I. And
the tremendous fear of blacks and cocaine. I had never heard of this before.
Then in the 30s we have marijuana and Mexican immigrants. We also had
smoking opium and Chinese immigrants. So you often have a drug that is
symbolically linked to some feared group.
It could go the other way, too. I remember that when Ghandi, in his
experiments on truth, wrote about [how] he was trying to figure out why the British
were so tall and so strong. And he decided [it was] because they eat meat. And although
he very later became a very strict vegetarian, he did try to eat meat. And so
substances can symbolize, positively or negatively. And marijuana has
symbolized both. To some people, it has symbolized the best in the
opportunities we have in the future--to change people and to make them
more cooperative and empathetic. And to other people, marijuana has come to
symbolize the decay of society and, perhaps, violence and danger.
Almost like two sides of America ...
DR. DAVID MUSTO
That's right. American has both of these images. America has both the image of
being very strict, [for example], national prohibition. Very few countries ever
had national prohibition. We had it for almost 14 years. And on the other hand,
we're a country that's famous for heavy drinking at various times around the
time of the 18th, 19th century, and about 1830, we drank, per capita, three to four
times what we drink per capita now in alcohol. So the United States has both of
these images--has the image of prohibition and abstinence, and it has the image of
tolerance of drugs and whatever you want to take and as much as you want to
Where are we right now?
DR. DAVID MUSTO
When you go to graduate school for history, you have to take an oath against
predicting the future. I don't want to be thrown out of the American
Historical Association, but I would say that the peak of our toleration of
drugs was reached about 1979 or 1980.
And since then, in general, we have been becoming more and more anti-drug.
We've become more anti-alcohol. Alcohol consumption hit a peak in 1980 also, as
well as marijuana hit a peak, about 1980. So, in many ways, we're becoming more
strict. If you look at the laws on the books that have been passed,
in 1986 and 1988, the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts, the fact that we now have warning
labels on alcohol beverage containers and the drinking age raised to 21.
Various things happening. The great acceptance of drug testing, for example.
All of these things are increasingly accepted, because we are more in
agreement against drugs such as marijuana.
Now that is a particular complexity for marijuana because marijuana is used by
a great many people. And I think that, actually, the American people are, in a
way, deciding now about marijuana in a way that they could have never had the
opportunity before. We are, in a sense, in the process of mulling over what
we are going to do about marijuana, but when we looked at our attitude toward
tobacco, and how that has accelerated, and how we're really moving toward the
prohibition of tobacco. It may not happen, but we're pretty close to
it now. And then you compare that attitude with what we should do about
marijuana. You can see that this is in a period of much greater concern, and
the desire to control, then let's say the 1960s.
What about the medical marijuana debate?
DR. DAVID MUSTO
The medical marijuana debate is extremely interesting. There's no question that
people who want to legalize marijuana are using the medical marijuana issue as
a wedge, and something like that had been tried earlier with heroin, for the
terminally ill. That is the idea being, if you can get one of these feared
drugs to be seen as a medicine, then it's not that far to saying well, perhaps
we should regulate its use rather than prohibit its use.
On the other hand, there are many statements from people who have used
marijuana in situation in which they've been greatly helped by marijuana and
that's in their testimony. So it's quite difficult. You have, on the one hand,
the actual medical benefits of marijuana, which are debated and then you have
it being used as a wedge. I think that it would be quite possible to do
studies that would confirm, so to speak, once and for all, what is the value of
marijuana as an anti-nausea medication or as an anti-glaucoma medication. I've
been told by an opthamologist that if you wanted to take marijuana for
glaucoma, you have to smoke five or six joints a day every day of your
life. Well, if that's true, and I don't know if that's true, that's a very
different way of saying it's useful in glaucoma, then
people usually take one drop, in their eye of another medication.
So I think that medical marijuana is quite an interesting issue, and it brings
up one other point I would like to make. And that is, before basic narcotics
law in this country, which was the Harrision Act in 1915, all the states had
different drug policies. For example, Massachusetts did not allow heroin
maintenance; New York state set up clinics to provide morphine maintenance.
That's how enormously different the states were.
Well, we may be unraveling the national consensus on drugs,
and bringing back to the states the decision as to what to do with drugs.
Because the votes in Arizona and in California, suggest that their could be
part of the country in which there's a different point of view. And I don't
know exactly how that would take place, but for someone from a historical
point of view, it's extremely interesting because the Harrision Act was
considered a great achievement because it harmonized all of these state laws.
But now, we may be going back to the situation where each state will decide for
itself what it wants to do about some substances like marijuana, which is what
Anslinger wanted to have happen in the first place!
Returning to some history again--marijuana was associated with jazz, black jazz
DR. DAVID MUSTO
That's true. There's some evidence that jazz bands actually spread the use of
marijuana and were a source of marijuana in the town that they went to. Now
this is an allegation that's been made. I've never checked this out, but
Anslinger said to me once "We had more jazz bands in jail in the 1930s than I
can count." Now I didn't know whether this was just hyperbole and there's no
way really to check these things, but there were well-known band leaders who
wrote music for marijuana, including Benny Goodman and others, songs
were recorded, were available, and this was another bane of Anslinger, the
idea that marijuana made you play jazz better.
And there was even a study done, in which they recorded people playing jazz
under marijuana, playing jazz without marijuana, and the jazz played without
marijuana was much better than the jazz played with marijuana. This is the kind
of scientific studies that were being done. And jazz bands-- we'll take, Louie
Armstrong, who is said to have never stopped using marijuana in his lifetime.
In general, the whole attitude toward the substance became more
negative. So, for example, in '46 or '47, Robert Mitchum was arrested for
marijuana use and had to spend 30 days in the Los Angeles prison farm doing
something. There was no talk about it at that time, about [how] he shouldn't
have to do this or this was excessive, or anything like this. It was actually
shocking news. That this had happened to most of the public. So whereas
marijuana might have been seen as bohmeian kind of use of the drug in the
20s and the 30s, it gradually became something that was practically equated
with heroin or cocaine.
World War II--was there a big shift in the government's attitude towards
DR. DAVID MUSTO
Well, what happened during World War II was that we were cut off from our
supply of rope and the Navy needed ropes. And we had grown hemp in this country
in the 18th century; John Adams promoted it very strongly from Massachusetts
and said this would be a great new American economic crop. So the Federal
Bureau of Narcotics gave licenses to a number of farmers to grow hemp to make
rope. It turned out the rope was not very good, it isn't easy to make good
rope and it failed. Anslinger told me that he gave out these
licenses to farmers in the northern areas, like Minnesota, because he felt they
wouldn't know what they were planting, and he wanted to avoid giving it to
people like in Kentucky who knew exactly what they would be planting. I'm not
sure this is exactly correct because I think there was some marijuana or hemp
being grown for the fiber in Kentucky at that time, but the government
didn't reverse it's attitude toward marijuana. But what it needed was the hemp
fibers for the Navy.
Speaking of hemp, I've heard what partly motivated the original laws against
marijuana was William Randolph Hearst, who wanted to have a monopoly on paper
manufacturing. Hemp was in competition for paper.
DR. DAVID MUSTO
There have been some unusual explanations of why we had the Marijuana Tax Act.
The first one I remember having heard in the 60s was the alcohol industry
just got through prohibition, and they realized that if you could grow marijuana
in your backyard,[it] would cost you simply nothing to get high, you wouldn't
buy alcohol. So the alcohol industry was behind the Marijuana Tax Act.
Then I've heard, it was actually the DuPont Company, because the DuPont Company
was coming out with nylon, and they were very fearful of competition from hemp,
which was also very strong fiber. Therefore, the DuPont Company was behind
the Marijuana Tax Act. And then there's the argument that William Randolph
Hearst was really behind the Act because he had paper plantations and trees to
make paper and you could also make paper out of hemp and therefore he wanted to
get rid of hemp.
And I've looked into these; there's no evidence that they were correct. I
think they come from people who can't believe that you could actually just be
against marijuana just because it's marijuana.
And the Marijuana Tax Act, which I've looked into at great length, is fully
explained by this agitation, which really was linked to the fear of Mexican
immigrants and the pressures on the government, and then they're using the
National Firearms Act model to form the Marijuana Tax Act. And I see no
evidence that either William Randolph Hearst, the DuPont Company, or the
liquor industry was behind it. But I would say about every five or six years a
new explanation comes up.
In a way, this whole debate over marijuana continually seems to bring in all
these other themes in American politics. It seems pretty much like a trigger
DR. DAVID MUSTO
Yes, it had become that. When marijuana was outlawed, the congressmen who were
in these committees and so on, really didn't know anything about it. They were
very unfamiliar with it and they were taking the government's word for it. And
I think, subsequently, it has become a different kind of a problem because now
you have a sizable number of people who say marijuana is OK and then you have
an often other sizable number of people who say it isn't OK.
You really do get into all sorts of areas as to how we should lead our
lives. Much of the debate over drugs comes from the philosophy of life. How
should you live your life? Should you lead it in a rather controlled,
disciplined way? Productive? Thinking about the future? So on and so forth? Or
should you think about just today and the important thing is relationships
with people rather than thinking ahead. Should the government intrude on your
private right to do something? Or does the government have an obligation to
take steps to protect you in ways that you couldn't protect yourself?
This goes back to the federalist papers, or to the Constitution ... and
marijuana has become the symbol of how we should think about something,
whether it's a medicine or not a medicine, a private right or a public right.
And it is very rich--the whole discussion on marijuana is fascinating because
people bring to it their deepest feelings and their image of how they would
like the world to be run.
Both world views are American. If you want to look back into
American history, you can find both sides well represented at various times in
our history, and how this is going to work out it's hard to predict. But I
would say that the fight over tobacco ... [there] must be a lot there to learn with
regard to marijuana.
How people have come to see tobacco and secondary smoke and so on the great
alarm over this you wonder how much would be transferred to the issue of
marijuana. At the moment, they really seem to be considered separate, but it's
hard to imagine they can stay separate indefinitely.
What was happening in terms of research into marijuana at the end of the 60s?
DR. DAVID MUSTO
Well, there was a lot of interest in doing research on marijuana in the late
60s as the Nixon administration was very interested in doing something about
drugs and trying to get the NIMH to do more research in this. And out of the
1970 Comprehensive Drug Abuse Act, came a request that there be established a
commission to look into marijuana and drug abuse in general.
That was called the Shafer Commission because Governor Shafer of Pennsylvania
chaired it. Well, they came out with the conclusion that marijuana should be
decriminalized, that small amounts for personal use might be fined like
you might get a ticket. People who were involved in big transportation of it
would still be arrested and go to jail. And this was very upsetting to
Now, President Nixon, I think of all of our presidents, was the one most
viscerally opposed to drugs. And he was very upset at the result of the Shafer
Commission and I remember he refused to allow any pictures to be taken or be
seen receiving this first report of the Shafer Commission, which was
bound in a green covered document entitled "Marijuana: Symbol Of
Misunderstanding," if I recall correctly. And the Shafer Commission was quite
interesting because it started off with people who seemed quite conservative on
the marijuana issue and wound up with this position, which is still considered
a rather liberal position.
So, Nixon did not accept this and what he did was set up large amounts of
treatment and research and other things for drugs. And the decriminalization
idea in the Shafer Commission didn't arise again until the Carter
administration. And [during] the Carter administration, I think it was in 1978,
all the heads of the agencies came before Congress and asked for the
decriminalization of marijuana of up to one ounce and it was quite interesting.
There was quite a backlash to this.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws had been formed in
1970. They were very upset about what experts were saying about marijuana,
they were very upset about people having enormously long minimum sentences for
the possession of marijuana and they got quite agitated over it. At the end of
the 70s, you had the parents movement formed and by this time drug experts were
saying marijuana is just a stage of life, it's nothing to be excited about and
so on. And the parents movement got very excited at the new batch of experts
and they created quite a reaction and defeated some people who were running for
Congress and had favored decriminalization. And then President Carter's drug
advisor had to resign after having written a prescription with a false name on
it. And so the Carter administration represents both the peak of
decriminalization of marijuana and attempts to do it and also the beginning of
the decline in support for marijuana.
And so you move right from the Carter administration into the Reagan
administration, which was very anti-drug and anti-marijuana. So, the
decriminalization things came out first I think in `72 with the first report of
marijuana commission, reached a peak about 1978 or so and has been in decline,
pretty much, since then.
Were parents a major force in the creation of the 1986 law?
DR. DAVID MUSTO
Yes. The parents movement became very strong, they were perceived as very
strong by the Carter administration, the last two years of the Carter
administration and during all of the Reagan administration. In fact, the
parents movement got into a position where they were able to review the
publications of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and were able to stop
publications which waffled on attitudes towards drugs. They wanted a very clear
no-tolerance position presented in any government publication, as well as any
And so the parents' movement was perceived by politicians as an important
representative group of Americans who demanded more action ... about 1986 and
the crack epidemic and the death of Len Bias and all that sort of thing lead
to this tremendous desire to strengthen the drug laws. The drug laws have been
loosening you might say, becoming more relaxed about 20 years. And mandatory
minimum sentences have been eliminated. Various things have happened that
were unraveling what had taken place before.
Now what was happening was that these laws were being put back into place and
actually the Republicans and Democrats seeing this as a tremendous, dangerous
issue vied with one another as to all the ways that they were going to help
control drugs. In 1986 you started to have the re-imposition of
mandatory minimum sentences and then in 1988, two years later, you had a new
anti-drug abuse act, which was even more severe than the previous one and this
introduced the death penalty for what were called "drug kingpins" and so on.
So both parties realized that if either one of them were seen as soft on drugs
it would be extremely bad for them in the elections.
It is very difficult for a politician to indicate softness or weakness on
drugs. The politicians are afraid to say anything and debate is stifled
because you have these two extremes. The drug issue is so polarized that it is
difficult to have anything in the middle and because each side feels that
they're fighting for their deepest beliefs about themselves and society, and
they aren't about to give up easily. So, you can see how difficult it is to
strike a happy medium between two extremes.
What are the polls saying now about what Americans are really thinking?
DR. DAVID MUSTO
I think that Americans are still very much opposed to the legalization of
drugs, from what they understand that to be. And at the same time, there is
some indication that people feel that perhaps the penalties for some things are
too severe. For example, the penalties for crack are really quite horrendous
compared to cocaine, of course crack is cocaine but ...
How about marijuana?
DR. DAVID MUSTO
It varies I think from where you live in the country. There
are parts of the country in which people would favor essentially the
decriminalization of marijuana, and there are other places in which they are
very much opposed to it. I think that probably the general consensus is still
against marijuana, but there has been quite a development of people feeling that
it isn't such a big issue and maybe should be dealt with less dramatically then,
let's say, heroin or cocaine.
Marijuana as a "gateway drug"--this is really part of the larger debate too.
DR. DAVID MUSTO
In a way marijuana is a gateway drug or alcohol can be a gateway drug, because
a lot of people use them and then some of those go onto something else. And in
that way, yes, it does precede and it's like the gateway drug. On the other
hand, you can't say that everybody who tries alcohol or everybody who tries
marijuana then goes on to these other drugs. It pretty much depends on how you
feel about this situation. And again, it goes back to how you think things
ought to be organized and how they ought to be perceived and the same evidence
is seen by one person as proof it isn't a gateway drug and to someone else it
settles it that it is.
And one point I wanted to make is that when people are enthusiastic about
drugs, and I'd have to go back and read some of the things ... what people said
in the 60s because it's hard to believe it now that they believe some of these
statements about how marijuana was going to completely change our consciousness
and we're all going to move into a new world and so on, or how the inside of
LSD, this insight into reality would change everything, these things haven't
The enthusiasm for drugs ... there's a lot of fantasy involved and
very little perception of any of the dangers. Only as time goes on and people
either become bored with the drugs or they don't do what they're supposed to
and they start seeing the bad effects, that people start turning against them.
So, in a way, the turning against drugs is more based on experience than the
enthusiasm, initially, which is based upon hope as to what the drugs are going
to do, and that ... you have to keep in mind when you're talking about these
One of the things that happens though is that it's very hard to convey to the
next generation a balanced view that was achieved with great difficulty by the
previous generation. That is why so much of the language about drugs is
scare language because the thought is we have to instill into a new generation
what we've learned. And yet, as we've seen, scare language is sort of
self-defeating oftentimes, because it is so exaggerated that it's unreal. You
really don't convey anything accurately and what you do is you set yourself up
for a disappointment again when people become exposed and they don't, let's say,
drop dead from trying that particular substance.
So we have to be very careful how you warn people against drugs that you don't
succumb to the absolutely normal temptation to follow the Anslinger style of
enormous exaggeration because it in the long run backfires.
I'll give you one example. In 1928 there was a national competition to
suggest the way in which we could improve prohibition and make it work. And
when I went through the Anslinger papers I came across his submission. He
actually sat down and wrote out and submitted it ... [his] whole idea was
mandatory minimum sentences for people who drank beer once. Now his view was
you'd only have to really put a number of people away for drinking beer once
and then a lot of people wouldn't drink beer at all and therefore this was the
So he started off life with the notion that severe penalties have tremendous
deterrent effect and they're very worth it. And I think that he ended up with
a very different estimate of the power of laws and law enforcement to simply
stop drug abuse. And I think that's probably where he would be today. He
would still be anti-drug, he would still favor tough law enforcement, but I
don't think that he would have, what I call, the kind of naive faith that simply
passing horrendous laws is going to cause the drug problem to go away.